Robert Zemeckis’ Flight is the most character-driven film of this year’s Academy Award contenders, which is impressive given the broad and eclectic range of performances on display.
Spielberg’s Lincoln is just as much about slavery and the passing of the 13th Amendment as it is the title character, though Daniel Day Lewis brings much-needed subtlety to the role in a film that might otherwise seem overly celebratory given the issues on display. Similarly, Hugh Jackman’s reformed thief Valjean may be impassioned, but he merely forms part of the broader portrait of revolutionary France in Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables.
Bradley Cooper and Joaquin Phoenix are both complimented in their roles as a newly de-institutionalized school teacher and a Oedipally tormented ex sailor in David O’ Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook and Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master by Jennifer Lawrence’s promiscuous, borderline unstable widow and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s expansive cult leader respectively.
In this regard, Denzel Washington’s star turn in Flight as pilot Whip Whittaker is more akin to that of Mickey Rourke in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler – that of a profoundly broken individual with one redeeming talent, their involvement in which threatens to derail their life.
Whip is a pilot for the fictional SouthJet Airlines. He’s also a high-functioning addict: when we first meet Whip, he downs the dregs from last-night’s beer before answering the phone and hoovers up a line of coke before heading out to work. There’s the strong impression that this is just a matter of routine for Whip and he hides their effects well.
Unfortunately, this just happens to be the day that Whip’s charter, Flight 227 from Orlando to Atlanta, experiences a mechanical failure and goes into a 4,800 foot nosedive. By some miracle, Whip manages to maneuver the plane right-side up before crash-landing in a field in a 10 minute sequence kept almost entirely in the cockpit.
The force of will it takes for Whip to pull off this feat is palpable – as will be revealed to him, the NTSB had ten pilots attempt to pull of the same landing under under simulation: each and every one killed everyone on board each and every time. Whip, on the other hand, saves 96 out of 102 the only time out.
He’s expected to be a national hero in the vein of “Sully” Sullenberger of the real-life Miracle on the Hudson, but when Whip’s blood test comes back positive for illicit substances, those six deaths become his burden to bear, both morally and legally. In thematic terms, the high-flying Whip is brought down to earth with a bump.
It’s been thirteen years since Zemeckis’ last live-action picture – 2000 featured both his desert island drama Cast Away and supernatural thriller What Lies Beneath. Since then, Zemeckis has focused on computer animated mo-cap affairs – The Polar Express, Beowulf, 2009’s A Christmas Carol – to varying degrees of critical and commercial success.
As in Forrest Gump, however, here Zemeckis puts CGI to stunning use in the aforementioned crash-landing – though certainly not as visceral as its equivalent in, say, the pilot of LOST, or as panoramic as Leonardo DiCaprio’s The Aviator, it feels tenser and realer than both.
When the wing of the fictitious JR-88 clips the steeple of passing church, visible from the corner of the cockpit window and already retreating, that small touch does more to ground you in the moment than any explosive decompression ever could. Like with Lieutenant Dan’s legs in the aforementioned Best Picture winner, it’s the little things that carry the drama.
Even so, as I’ve already suggested, the film lives or dies with Washington’s performance. As the heroic drunk, Whip, Washington brings the same charm that he did to the dangerous Alonso Harris in Training Day, but here that charm is merely a cover for his deep personal failings.
Washington is 58 years old, though he certainly doesn’t look it, and Whip, however old he’s supposed to be, is still banging stewardesses and in need of narcotic inducement to get him out of bed in the morning. This is a man living in denial and whom it takes a literal plane crash to force him to take stock of his situation.
Whip is a smart man and a fundamentally good one; indeed, the film is brave or foolhardy enough to suggest that it was his chemical dependency that gave Whip the self-control he needed to land the plane. Also, tangentially, I know I’m not the first to note this, but can we declare a moratorium on the use of the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s Under the Bridge and Cowboy Junkie’s Sweet Jane, both implicitly about drug use, in films that are explicitly about drug use?
The soundtrack also features The Rolling Stones, Bill Withers, and Marvin Gaye, all quality artists, but when a muzak version of The Beatles’ With a Little Help From My Friend plays apparently unironically as Whip rides the elevator with his defense team… let’s just say that a little subtext goes a long way.
In terms of his “friends”, John Goodman brings his considerable (dramatic) heft to the part of Whip’s conniving drug dealing associate – who brings him cocaine to perk him up for his hearing after Whip passes out blind drunk – while Don Cheadle is solid in the largely thankless role of Whip’s attorney.
Nadine Velazquez and Kelly Reilly play his respective love interests, whose stories I will not ruin here; suffice it to say, one of them plays strongly in Whip’s eventual and inevitable redemption. Melissa Leo also appears, as a hardball NTSB investigator.
While real pilots can and have laughed at Whip’s ability to pilot under the influence, the film is a layered character study of a man whose addiction and hubris conspire to bring him low in spite of himself. And, like with Rourke in The Wrestler, Washington will inevitably lose out to a portrayal of a progressive politician assassinated at the height of his legislative powers.
Still, as it stands, this is one film trip well worth the making.